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In Praise of Womanhood

  • Object:

    Triptych

  • Place of origin:

    London (designed and made)

  • Date:

    1901 (designed and made)

  • Artist/Maker:

    Alexander Fisher, born 1864 - died 1936 (designer and maker)

  • Materials and Techniques:

    Copper, foil backed and enamelled

  • Gallery location:

    In Storage

Alexander Fisher was born in Shelton, Staffordshire on March 3, 1864. His father was a ceramics painter for Brown-Westhead, Moore & Co and from the 1870s, for the Terra Cotta Co. His son enamelled on terracotta with his father before winning a National Scholarship in painting at the National Art Training Schools, South Kensington 1884-86 and subsequently a travelling scholarship to Italy and France. On returning to London he opened a studio at 139 Oxford Street and then at a succession of addresses in Kensington.

Fisher’s entry into the field of enamelling was encouraged by Thomas Armstrong, the Director of Art of the Science and Art Department, South Kensington. Armstrong commissioned a French enameller, Louis Dalpayrat (1838-1900) to give a series of lessons in the technique of enamelling to twelve students of which Fisher was one and the only one to continue to study and refine the techniques after the course had finished. Fisher mastered all enamelling techniques, champlevé, cloisonné, bassetaille, plique à jour and painted enamel. It was with this last technique that Fisher particularly excelled and which is used in the Easton triptych, where the painted enamel is laid on a background of metal foil giving the work an extraordinary depth and luminosity of colour. Fisher’s position in the Arts and Crafts movement can be aligned with the work of artists such as Edward Burne-Jones and designers such as William Morris.

The subject matter for the Easton triptych, IN PRAISE OF WOMANHOOD, is taken from Shakespeare’s, “Two Gentlemen of Verona” (Act IV, scene II) where the Host sings the following song: “Who is Sylvia? What is she / That all our swains commend her? / Holy, fair and wise is she, / The heaven such grace did lend her / That she might admired be / Is she kind as she is fair? / For beauty lives with kindness / Love doth to her eyes repair / To help him of his blindness / And, being helped, inhabits there. / Then to Sylvia let us sing / That Sylvia is excelling; / She excels each mortal thing / Upon the dull earth dwelling. / To her let us garlands bring.” Fisher in his correspondence with Mrs Easton wrote: `I have tried to put the whole of Shakespeare’s thought into this. The three attributes “Holy”, “Fair” & “Wise” & “Kindness” and the power of Beauty.’ Thus, explains the legend along the base of the central panel: IN PRAISE OF WOMANHOOD.

Place of Origin

London (designed and made)

Date

1901 (designed and made)

Artist/maker

Alexander Fisher, born 1864 - died 1936 (designer and maker)

Materials and Techniques

Copper, foil backed and enamelled

Marks and inscriptions

IN·PRAISE·OF·WOMANHOOD
Embossed lettering along the front of the base.

Alex Fisher / 1901
Signed in the lower right hand corner of the central panel.

Dimensions

Height: 38 cm, Width: 28 cm doors closed, Width: 54 cm Doors open, Height: 38 cm, Width: 27 cm Central enamel frame, Height: 33.5 cm, Width: 23.5 cm Central enamel, Height: 38 cm, Width: 13.5 cm Side enamel frames, Height: 34 cm, Width: 9.5 cm Side enamel panels

Object history note

Significance
In the space of only fifteen years from the late 1880s, Alexander Fisher was almost solely responsible for a major innovation in the English decorative arts; the establishment of enamel work as an important element of metalwork design, beyond its limited applications in the jewellery and watchmaking trades. He was gifted silversmith, enameller and sculptor, who made a major artistic contribution to the Arts and Crafts movement. He was one of the foremost educators in an age when art education was revolutionized. From 1896 to 1908, The Studio published twenty pieces illustrating his work. Other journals publicised his work throughout Europe and America. And yet the known details of his life are sketchy.

Alexander Fisher was born in Shelton, Staffordshire on March 3, 1864. His father was a ceramics painter for Brown-Westhead, Moore & Co and from the 1870s, for the Terra Cotta Co. His son enamelled on terracotta with his father before winning a National Scholarship in painting at the National Art Training Schools, South Kensington 1884-86 and subsequently a travelling scholarship to Italy and France. On returning to London he opened a studio at 139 Oxford Street and then at a succession of addresses in Kensington.

Fisher’s entry into the field of enamelling was encouraged by Thomas Armstrong, the Director of Art of the Science and Art Department, South Kensington. Armstrong commissioned a French enameller, Louis Dalpayrat (1838-1900) to give a series of lessons in the technique of enamelling to twelve students of which Fisher was one and the only one to continue to study and refine the techniques after the course had finished. Fisher mastered all enamelling techniques, champlevé, cloisonné, bassetaille, plique à jour and painted enamel. It was with this last technique that Fisher particularly excelled and which is used in the Easton triptych, where the painted enamel is laid on a background of metal foil giving the work an extraordinary depth and luminosity of colour. Fisher’s position in the Arts and Crafts movement can be aligned with the work of artists such as Edward Burne-Jones and designers such as William Morris.

The subject matter for the Easton triptych, IN PRAISE OF WOMANHOOD, is taken from Shakespeare’s, “Two Gentlemen of Verona” (Act IV, scene II) where the Host sings the following song: “Who is Sylvia? What is she / That all our swains commend her? / Holy, fair and wise is she, / The heaven such grace did lend her / That she might admired be / Is she kind as she is fair? / For beauty lives with kindness / Love doth to her eyes repair / To help him of his blindness / And, being helped, inhabits there. / Then to Sylvia let us sing / That Sylvia is excelling; / She excels each mortal thing / Upon the dull earth dwelling. / To her let us garlands bring.” Fisher in his correspondence with Mrs Easton wrote: `I have tried to put the whole of Shakespeare’s thought into this. The three attributes “Holy”, “Fair” & “Wise” & “Kindness” and the power of Beauty.’ Thus, explains the legend along the base of the central panel: IN PRAISE OF WOMANHOOD.

Unusually, this triptych comes accompanied with original documentation in the form of a series of letters to Mrs Easton from Alexander Fisher. These reveal payment details (the original cost of this commission was £100) and arrangements for delivery but also Fisher’s own assessment of his work. Fisher regarded the triptych as “the largest and best enamel that I have yet done.” Exhibited at the International Society of Sculptors, Painters and Gravers, (November 1901), “It has received very great praise from all who have seen it.” The letters also reveal the source for the imagery of the central panel, Shakespeare’s “Two Gentlemen of Verona”, Act IV, Scene II.
Fisher’s role as an educator was enormously influential and took two forms: private tuition for necessarily wealthy patrons and involvement with art schools. Fisher was closely involved with W.R. Lethaby and the foundation of the Central School of Arts and Crafts. Fisher, as well as teaching enamelling and silversmithing techniques at the Central School also taught enamelling at the City and Guilds Technical College based in Finsbury for 22 years which also became a significant element in the new art movement. These initiatives had a direct effect on the growth and success of the Arts and Crafts movement.

Alexander Fisher’s importance is as a major artist of the British Arts and Crafts movement, a superb technician and a prominent figure in the development of British art school education in the 20th century.

Provenance.
This triptych was commissioned by Mrs L.F. Easton of La Crosse, Wisconsin, USA. Mrs Mary Easton was the wife of Lucian Frederick Easton and the daughter-in-law of a prominent local land owner and businessman, Jason Easton, who had extensive agricultural holdings, owned eleven local banks and had a controlling interest in the Southern Minnesota Railroad. The Eastons were one of Wisconsin’s wealthiest, most political and socially savvy families. They were intensely involved in community projects. Family members were represented on the local Board of Education, the Board of Park Commissioners, the Pettibone Park Commission, and various medical foundations and associations.

Mrs Mary Easton, born on January 1st, 1865, died on her 81st birthday in 1946. She was the daughter of a prominent La Crosse attorney, Joseph W. Losey and incidentally the aunt of the American theatre and film director, Joseph Losey of whom, it is said, was highly influenced by his aunt’s sophistication and culture during his formative, teenage years. She was the first President of the La Crosse Home for Friendless Women and Children which was started in 1888. This institution offered sanctuary to destitute spinsters, widows and unmarried mothers with their unintended offspring. This association may provide the explanation for the theme of the triptych `IN PRAISE OF WOMANHOOD.’ During World War 1 she was Executive Chairman of the American Red Cross, and was also on the Board of Directors of the La Crosse Hospital and the Social Service Society. Wealthy, she and her husband lived in a magnificent residence at 1317 Cass Street which Mrs Easton furnished with paintings and art objects. In this she was advised as indeed was her mother-in-law, Sarah Johnson Easton by a German émigré artist, Robert Koehler and his wife, a prominent portrait artist who had settled in nearby Minnesota and was Director of the Minneapolis School of Fine Arts.

The Eastons were clearly a close-knit family. They occupied magnificent residences opposite each other in Cass Street, La Crosse. Sarah Easton, (Mrs Jason Easton) was an important art collector and had a significant collection of etchings by James McNeil Whistler. Artistic interests were also shared by her daughter in law, Mary Easton and the Koehlers evidently were involved in the Alexander Fisher commission as the accompanying correspondence shows.

Descriptive line

Triptych, In Praise of Womanhood, Enamel on copper, London, 1901, designed and made by Alexander Fisher.

Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)

Alexander Fisher, The Art of True Enamelling on Metals, London, The Studio, Vol. 25, 1902. pp. 108-118. ill.
Henry H. Cunynghame, European Enamels, London, Methuen, 1906. ill. pl.21
Pudney, Stephen, "Alexander Fisher: Pioneer of Arts and Crafts Enamelling", The Journal of the Decorative Arts Society 1850-The Present, N.23, 1999, pp.70-85.

Materials

Copper; Enamel

Techniques

Enamelling (painting)

Subjects depicted

Female; Harp; Viols da gamba

Categories

Enamels; English; Feminism; Metalwork; Theatre

Production Type

Unique

Collection

Metalwork Collection

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